Mohinga is to the Burmese what menudo may be to the Mexicans. It’s the stuff of life, found all across Burma, in homes, street stalls and in restaurants. As a kid, I regularly ate it for breakfast on weekends (there was no way I was going to school with a potent fishy breath). Over the years, I’ve had countless iterations of mohinga. I’ll tell you this: once you’ve eaten enough bowls of mohinga, you realize that no two persons cook the same recipe–every chef makes the dish their own.
I’m not about to start a feud between Thai and Burmese cuisines. But having been fueled by endless bowls of khao soi* while I was in northern Thailand, I beyond excited to grab a bowl of the ‘original’ Burmese coconut chicken noodle soup, aka on no khauk swe (အုန်းနို့ခေါက်ဆွဲ) when I flew into Burma.
*Khao soi just means ‘noodles’ in Burmese. Khao soi is Thailand’s take on the Burmese coconut chicken noodle soup, and has an intense coconut milk broth, on wheat noodles and a curried protein (chicken or beef).
I won’t lie. There’s a very special place in my heart for Burmese food, because it brings me home. The sound of chilis and garlic ground with a stone mortar and pestle, the aroma of caramelized onions, and the pungency of fermented fish sauce. And I had a obscene amount of it while visiting the Midwest last month.
Americanized Burmese food is one of those things that instantly repulses yet fascinates me. At the one hand, I’m surprised there’s a market for Burmese cuisine outside the country. On the other hand, I’m left at the end of the meal feeling unfulfilled.
An incomplete Burmese meal imparts a feeling called “ah yi” (အအီ), with no true English equivalent, describing how one feels after wolfing down a hearty and oil-laden meal. I won’t dissect the anatomy of the requisites in a Burmese meal, but dishes are paired according to their qualities. For example, oil-based curries are paired with a sour-tasting soup to offset the oiliness, and by extension, that feeling.
This August, my grandma passed away, shortly after she turned 90. Despite how emotionally prepared we thought we were, it was still a bittersweet occasion.
With that said, I thought I would provide a glimpse into some traditions and rituals performed during Chinese Buddhist funeral services and Burmese death anniversaries. A major feature of many Chinese rites is food. Funeral services are no exception. However, in comparison to Taoist rites, Buddhist rites are very solemn affairs devoid of ostentation (i.e. no gold paper or hell note burning).
Over spring break, Josie and I took a road trip with some friends to Norcal. We had already planned out all the food places we’d hit up along the way and we somehow managed to eat at all of them. 🙂 Food (and good company) was the highlight of this trip.
After a really long drive up to SF, we checked in our hotel near the Civic Center and did some sightseeing at the City Hall. Then we headed over to Burmese Kitchen, a Burmese resto really close to SF’s Little Saigon. The place is pretty small and packed at dinner time. We waited for a good 20 minutes for our seats.
There are a bunch of Burmese carvings and decorations in Burmese Kitchen, giving it a homely feel. But I’m still of the opinion that home-cooked Burmese food is a lot better tasting than restaurant-style Burmese food. I just wanted my friends to experience Burmese food.
For appetizers, we ordered Burmese-style samuza (ဆမူစာ) for $4.95. Unlike Indian samosas, Burmese ones are relatively flat and triangle-shaped. They were perfectly fried, but a bit too small for my liking. (The samuza I’m used to are the size of my palm.) The potato-filled samuza came with a tangy and sweet sauce.
We also ordered fish cake salad or nga phe thok (ငဖယ်သုပ်) for $6.50. Nothing too amazing—just strips of fried fish cake mixed in with a generous serving of oil, chilies on the side, chopped lettuce and onions.
For the main course, we had the pork with pickled mango (ဝက်သားနဲ့သရက်သနပ်အချင်) for $6.50 and chicken curry (ကြက်သားဆီပြန်) for $5.50. As a primer, Burmese curries are rather oily (curries are called si byan or “glistening with oil” in Burmese).
The pork with pickled mango was rather disgusting, to be honest. The pickled mango slices, contrary to my expectations that it would be sweet, were really sour and difficult to chew. My mom always cooks this dish with sweet mango pickles, which give off a delicate masala spice fragrance that can be tasted in the pork. However, here, the pork chunks were totally drowned in an overpowering sour sauce.
The chicken curry was decent, but missing most of the oil sauce that it’s cooked in (maybe to make it more edible to non-Burmese folks). It was a bit too salty for me too.
We also ordered the tamarind fish (ငါးဆီပြန်နဲ့ ခရမ်းချင်သီး) for $6.95. It’s a shame that they were so stingy with portions. I could’ve eaten all of the fish fillets on the plate in a single bite.
Since we were still not full, we ordered pork with chana dal (ပဲပြုတ်နဲ့ဝက်သားဟင်း) as our last course, for $6.50. It tasted and looked more like an Indian dish than a Burmese one, especially the Indian chickpeas and the spices used. But as usual, a generous amount of oil used.
Prompt and friendly—I got to use my Burmese skills for a change. The restaurant owners (presumably) were pretty nice too. Since our rice was late, they gave us extra rice (biryani and coconut rice as well) on the house. Also, we were able to use a 10% coupon without any trouble by showing an online copy, since I forgot to bring my printed coupon.
Disappointingly small portions, but a good place for introducing Burmese cuisine to people who otherwise might not have a chance to try it out. I still think that monasteries and homes are the best places to find authentic Burmese food though!
Address: 452 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102 | map
Golden City (ရွှေမြို့တော် ချစ်တီး စားတော်စက်) is a Yangon-based franchise serving Burmese-style Southern Indian (Chettiar) cuisine. Most tourists who go to Burma realize that Indian and Chinese restaurants are much more common than native Burmese ones, especially in the cities. I think it’s because locals would much rather eat home-cooked Burmese food.
The insides are clean and comfortable. It’s a rather spotless restaurant, but it’s thoroughly local. And there’s an army of waiters at your beck and call.
My dad ordered aloo poori (အာလူးပူရီ) with goat curry (ဆိပ်သားဟင်း), served in the traditional Southern Indian style. Potato poori (puff-like bread) is dipped into the curry sauce and eaten with the side of dahl. It was pretty tasty, but not warm enough. (Burmese people tend to eat curries once they’re cooled, but I’m not used to that at all. It’s sorta unappetizing.)
As appetizers, we got some samusas (ဆမူစာ). Burmese samusas look more like flat, triangle-shaped dumplings than their Indian counterparts. The insides are a bit saltier too. Since my aunt thought they’d been out for awhile, she asked them to refry these, which explains why they look so greasy.
Someone also ordered Panthay (Chinese Muslim) rice (ပန်းသေးထမင်းကြော်), which wasn’t distinct at all. It just tasted like Chinese fried rice.
Panthay (Chinese Muslim) noodles with chicken (ပန်းသေးခေါက်ဆွဲ). It’s a dish of noodles and meat curry in a lightly oiled sauce, topped off with egg. It’s not spicy, and has a very distinct masala spice scent.
A variation of Panthay (Chinese Muslim) noodles with goat meat.
All in all, the food was okay, but nothing spectacular.
Address: near Downtown?
First stop upon landing in Burma: an obligatory pilgrimage to Shwe Pu Zun (ရွှေပုဇွန်, literally “Golden Shrimp,” but more a bakery and desserts shop), hands down, my favorite faloodah shop in the WORLD. Shwe Pu Zun is one of those rare Burmese eateries that actually meet international standards. I could imagine opening a franchise here in the States one day. Until then, it’s just a dream.
Ordering at the counter with a hoard of other people. Shwe Pu Zun probably attracts mostly middle and upper-end folks, because it’s not cheap by Burmese standards. The menu’s not too extensive, but they’re good at the food they serve.
The inside is spacious and clean. Pontsettias all around because it was Christmas that day.
The first thing I got was the one and only Burmese-style faloodah (ဖာလူဒါ), served with milk-soaked bread pudding, rosewater, tapioca and green verimicelli. It’s sweet-smelling and very tasty. All the faloodah crap I eat here in America can’t match Shwe Pu Zun’s.
Next was durian ice cream, which was okay. It was a bit too sweet but the durian taste was certainly there.
Last order was milk kulfi (ကူလ်ဖီ). If you’re familiar with Indian desserts, you know that it’s India’s answer to ice cream. The texture is very smooth and milky, and it’s rather thick, so it melts more slowly than ice cream.
Address: Shwe Pu Zun No. 14/A, Min Nandar Rd, Dawbon Township
One of my personal goals in this food voyage of mine (from my mom’s dining table to a hole-in-the-wall resto in the middle of nowhere) is to enlighten people about both little known and well known food cultures around the world. It’s always a delight for me to try new foods (unless it’s about consuming odd animal body parts like testicles, ovaries and that nonsense.)
I took pictures of just about everything I ate in my last trip to Asia (200 photos on the last count), thinking that I would blog about it along the way. Alas, accessing internet and a time crunch became major issues for me, especially in Burma. So here I am, writing about the interesting things I ate, 7 months later. Better late than never, I suppose.
While wandering through Yangon’s Chinatown, at the heart of Burma’s former capital, my family stopped by Shwe Shan Lay (ရွှေရှမ်းလေး), a home restaurant next to a famous Chinese temple, specializing in ethnic Shan cuisine (As a side note, the Shans are an ethnic minority living in the highlands and known for their use of preserved and fermented ingredients and pork).
One of the saddest things about Burma is how pervasive child labor is, from live-in maids to waiters. This is common throughout Asia, but nowhere as blatantly practiced. The young boys serving us were probably all younger than 10 and most likely had been bought from rural families who need extra income. I guess it’s one of the sobering realities of visiting other countries.
Anyway, everyone ordered variations of Shan noodles called (Shan khauk hswe (ရှမ်းခေါက်ဆွဲ), which are vermicelli rice noodles, pickled mustards, and ground pork, in a curry gravy and garnished with crushed peanuts. A large serving cost only K800, or ~80 cents, easy to say for a foreigner. But the average Burmese person makes little more than $1 a day, so it’s no wonder most people can’t afford to eat out everyday. I thought it was a little dry.
The dish was served with mustard greens. The Shans are famous for their mustard greens (called Shan mon hnyin gyin or ရှမ်းမုန်ညင်းချဉ်), preserved vegetables that are characteristically sour and complement almost any rich dish. My parents managed to smuggle a jar or two back to the US, along with at least 20 pounds of pickled tea leaves and other foodstuffs.
I also ordered a large bowl of Shan tofu salad (ရှမ်းတိုဖူးသုပ်), which is a salad of yellow tofu (made from chickpeas, not soybeans), and dressed in a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar, and peanut oil, then garnished with cilantro, fried onion bits, peanuts and red chili, K700, or ~70 cents. This is one of my favorite Shan-style dishes, because I love how smooth and firm the tofu is. And even when eaten alone, it has a distinct taste, unlike soybean tofu, which is essentially bland when eaten by itself. This particular dish was absolutely delicious, with perfectly dressed and soaked slices of tofu.
The restaurant also had two cats that I couldn’t help but take pictures of before we left. 🙂
Address: No. 71, Sin O Dan St, Latha Township, Yangon, Burma
The restaurant itself is very unassuming—whitewashed walls and pinned up Arabic calligraphy and scriptures from the Quran. There’s also a small market in the back selling masala and other random Asian groceries, giving the place a mom-and-pop shop vibe.
As for the food, two words: cheap and good, my favorite combination. You order immediately at the door, and everything’s served on disposable plates. Service is at a minimal and no-frills.
I ordered the dal goash curry, lamb and dal bean cooked in Indian spices, along with naan and basmati rice and a side of sour vegetables (ah-chin in Burmese, to balance the richness of oil-based curries and heavy meals). At first, I almost choked on my food because I thought I had accidentally ordered beef. Luckily that wasn’t the case. The meal was satisfying indeed, although the naan was a little on the oily side. The curry itself was very pungent and rich, and apparently the lamb tastes exactly like beef.
Josie ordered lamb curry, which tasted similar to my curry, aside from the absence of beans. On the other hand, Saba ordered the vegetable curry, which was particularly well suited to the naan. I think Nicole ordered the beef boti kabab, but I can only wonder what that tasted like.
We also got Burmese-style samusas, which are basically flat triangle-shaped dumplings stuffed with potato, which came with a radioactive green sour dip with mint leaves. To my disappointment, they were smaller than I expected and sort of on the light side.
All in all, the meal was enjoyable and cheap at that. I’m coming again, to try out how good their Burmese dishes are.
P.S. It’s the Food Coma team’s 2nd ever blogged outing! 🙂
A meal isn’t complete without rice, at least for me, something I longed for everyday while living in the dorms. This is what I eat when I’m too lazy. A simple meal of steamed rice, ngapi kyet kyaw (fried fermented fish paste with shrimp, onions, garlic and a lot of chili), and tozaya (a side of freshly sliced cucumbers for crunch).
Biryani (dan pauk)
This is an update I should have made 3 weeks ago, when my family ordered Burmese biryani from a pretty well known Indian-Burmese guy who caters this SINGLE dish for a living. (I hate that his dog follows him inside our house when he delivers the trays but that’s another story altogether.) Now, mind you, cooking biryani is no easy task and only Indians are good at making it, because the spice mix is complicated and there’s yogurt involved too, which explains why my mom never even attempts to make this on her own.
Long grained rice, curry-marinated chicken, raisins, cashew nuts, a ton of spices and turmeric. Eaten with a salad of zested onions and cucumber and a dollop of mango pickle.
Burmese mixed noodle salad (khauk swe thoke)
Bleh, I’ve been meaning to update this but kept forgetting, every single time I logged onto Tumblr, until now.
My mom dropped off Burmese mixed noodle salad (khauk swe thoke) over on Saturday, so I’ve been happily eating this until today, when I ran out.
As with most Burmese food, this is a hearty meal. 🙂 The dish is slightly sweet and salty, crunchy (the cabbage) and refreshing (cucumbers). Maybe if I ever feel inclined to cook, I’ll try making it. Maybe.
Long wheat noodles mixed in with sliced cucumbers, fried fish paste, cabbage, cilantro, dried chili, mixed with peanut oil, garlic and fish sauce.
I’ve decided that I will take macro, artsy-fartsy shots when I take pictures of food so be prepared.